IT STARTED WITH a sinus infection. Whenever surfers Jared Criscuolo and Kristian Gustavson went out after a big storm in San Diego, they’d get sick from the influx of polluted runoff. “We realized we could either keep complaining about not being able to surf after it rains or we could do something about it,” says Criscuolo.
So in 2008 the pair, who met while volunteering for the Surfrider Foundation, founded Below the Surface, a nonprofit that aims to educate people about water issues. Gustavson, 27, had just completed a pollution study on the Mississippi and was preparing for a 700-mile canoe trip down the river. Criscuolo, 30, was working in finance and began speaking to every congressman, business leader, and city water manager who’d listen. The only problem: it was a tough sell. “Water politics is generally uninspiring,” says Criscuolo.
The two quickly decided they needed a more radical approach. Their first expedition, in 2009, was a ramshackle affair. After borrowing a 17-foot aluminum canoe from a guy they met on Craigslist, Criscuolo and Gustavson drove a biodiesel-fueled 1989 Ford F250 from San Diego to Mount Shasta, in Northern California. From there they paddled 300 miles down the Sacramento River.
“The idea was that you wouldn’t buy wine without knowing its source, so we wanted to educate Californians about where their drinking water came from,” says Gustavson, an Illinois native who just finished a master’s program in marine biodiversity and conservation at the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. While the trip was moderately successful—they took photos and video and stopped off at the state capital to talk with legislators—their biggest triumph was fortuitous: at one point during the journey, they convinced producers for a local CBS affiliate to air their cause on the news. “Showing people video of sewage spilling into rivers started a conversation that helped validate what we were doing,” says Criscuolo, who grew up in Connecticut and was a financial adviser at UBS before starting Below the Surface.
Now, two years and six expeditions later, including epics down the Tijuana and Atchafalaya rivers, Criscuolo and Gustavson are taking Below the Surface onto the national stage with the Riverview Project. Partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Immersive Media, a Dallas-based interactive-video firm, the duo will chart America’s most imperiled rivers employing the same technology used to create Google’s Street View. Beginning in spring 2012, they’ll start with the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Colorado rivers. (The plan is to hit 27 rivers over the course of five years.) After capturing the necessary footage, they’ll post 360-degree panoramic views of each river, from source to sea, online.
“We hope to help people visualize America’s rivers in their entirety and to show firsthand the importance of protecting them,” says Gustavson. The USGS has offered access to boats, personnel, and all the data they’ll need to create a robust digital profile of the rivers, which will include updates on water conditions and ways for individuals to improve river-water quality where they live. With Immersive Media’s help, they’ll also make maps, design virtual expeditions, and develop guides to fishing and paddling spots, in addition to ongoing work with agencies, policy makers, and other groups to encourage water recycling and the purification of waste-water streams. It’s an ambitious undertaking, for sure—documenting the Colorado alone will take five weeks—but the overarching goal is simple. “We want to help people build relationships with rivers,” says Criscuolo.
Criscuolo’s and Gustavsons’s résumés rose to the top of an impressive stack of nominations submitted by readers. We chose the two surfers because they embody the perfect combination of passion, adventure, and altruism. For 2012, they’ll be listed on our masthead as Outside’s chief inspiration officers, and they’ll be blogging about their Riverview Project as the year progresses. Follow their adventures, and nominate someone you know for Outside’s 2013 Reader of the Year, at http://www.outsideonline.com/readeroftheyear.